Cleat Geeks

Is Panthers’ D-Line To Blame For Shoddy Run Defense?

It seems like every year, the Panthers have one of these games. Last year it was the game at Chicago, in similarly dreary weather, where the Panthers looked like the better team, but just found a way to lose.  Sunday’s game at Washington was frustrating from a fan’s standpoint, not just because it was a game that the Panthers should have won, but also because it will help drive false narratives about the team. As we get into this one, let’s take a critical eye to some of those narratives and debunk them if we can.

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Let’s start with the popular scapegoat so far, the Defensive Line, and poor, poor Dontari Poe. There are multiple jokes in there somewhere, but I don’t feel like pulling them out right now. The Panthers let Star Lotulelei walk in free agency and then committed about the same dollar figure per year to Poe. I thought it would be an upgrade and give the team cap flexibility sooner. Fans on Panthers Twitter have hurled spears at the defensive line in general, and Poe in particular all season. But Poe is not a pass rusher, and we knew that coming into the season. Neither was Star. Poe’s job is to keep guards and centers off of Luke Kuechly in the run game and push guard and centers back into their QBs face so he has nowhere to escape the outside rush. Any tackles-for-loss or sacks are just gravy.

The Panthers now have 12 sacks on the season, and their adjusted sack rate is just over 6%. Those numbers put them in the bottom half of the league. While the Panthers’ sack numbers are not great, they again applied pressure to Alex Smith quite often on Sunday. Smith is a slippery veteran and gets away from pressure well. With that said, the Panthers rush got home three times, and forced at least three bad throws with pressure. Yes, they do need more sacks, but sometimes that is out of your control. As long as they continue to pressure QBs, the sacks will come.

The run defense has been shoddy at times–ok quite often, and that seems like it would fall squarely on the D Line’s shoulders. But entering Week 6, the Panthers were third in adjusted line yards, tenth in power run success against, and third in run stuff percentage per Football Outsiders. They were 27th in second-level yards allowed and 31st in open-field yards allowed. What that means is that the defensive line is doing its job–which is to keep the backers and DBs clean to make stops–but those guys aren’t making them.  Again on Sunday, the back seven let the Panthers down at least twice. Shaq Thompson was in beautiful position in his gap on an 8-yard run by Kapri Bibbs, but just whiffed the tackle, and then on the Skins’ final drive, Mike Adams had both hands on Peterson, only to see him get free and run for a first down in field goal range.  We remember some other brutal missed tackles from Rashaun Gaulden against the Giants and Donte Jackson against the Falcons that sprung big plays as well. The D Line definitely has work to do, but it is far from the lone scapegoat out there.

Speaking of Donte Jackson, let’s talk for a minute about the rookie corner. He is turning into a fan favorite, and with good reason. His three interceptions have provided a spark to the Panthers’ secondary, and his fearless demeanor is reminiscent of Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, and some other top DBs. He is the top graded rookie CB in the league right now per Pro Football Focus, and top 10 overall. He looks like a guy with future All-Pro potential. Here’s why that is so important.

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Drafting guys who can start and contribute while on their rookie deal is a necessity in the NFL. The salary cap just won’t allow teams to sign a roster full of studs the way the Dodgers or Yankees can in Major League Baseball.  If a team can get 3-4 guys out of every draft that contribute, they’re doing ok.  But when a team gets a guy who can come in and immediately upgrade some position of need, and eventually be among the best at his position, while still getting paid rookie contract money, it’s like the NFL cheat code.  It allows a team to keep its other free agents, or compete for the best free agents on the open market to strengthen its weak points, and it is really the basis for building elite units.  The Jaguars did this with their defense, except it took them multiple years of Top 5 picks before it all panned out.  The Panthers have Luke and KK Short locked in through 2020, Bradberry is still on his rookie deal through next season, and so is Shaq Thompson. The foundation is already laid for a very good defense for the next 3-4 years, and by landing Jackson, the Panthers will have the money to pursue an elite edge lineman in free agency or with a first round pick, and really take the defense to the next level.  Of course, there are misses in the first round and even with the big-money free agent deals, so nothing is guaranteed, but the Panthers checked a prerequisite with Jackson.

Up next for the Panthers is a tough, tough road game at the Linc against the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. Their top running back Jay Ajayi is out for the year with an ACL–continuing a season-long trend of dodging many top RBs–and All-Pro LT Jason Peters is out with a biceps injury. It should be a good time for a get-well game for the run defense. This is not only a huge test for Carolina, but it may have playoff implications down the road when head-to-head tie breaker rules start coming into play.  The Eagles are mean up front on defense, but have struggled in coverage a bit this year, so this may be the week for old Riverboat and Norv to start slinging the pigskin around the yard all willy-nilly.

Til next week, cheers!

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